How To Write A Great Cover Letter: The Complete Guide

You have identified a great job and know you can perform well in the role. Now all you have to do is convey that message up-front and with confidence to your prospective employer. Get the employer hooked right from the word go with a spot-on cover letter that introduces who you are and why you’re the best person for the job. A well-written, personalised cover letter also increases the chances that your resume will be thoroughly read.

Your cover letter serves as an at-a-glance insight into why you’re a good fit for the role on offer. With this summary of your brilliant career you can stun a recruiter with the quality and relevance of your skills, qualifications, knowledge and experience. In today’s competitive job market, your cover letter needs to draw attention fast; it gives you the chance to show off the fact that you’ve done your homework. You’re not applying for a job, you’re applying for the job — the job that is perfect for you.

This article introduces the cover letter, shows you the essential elements and layout, and provides some examples of different cover letters to fit your needs. We also share some practical hints and tips to help you design a powerful letter that will give you that winning edge over your competition.

The Purpose of A Cover Letter

Most employers these days still require a cover letter. A well-written cover letter establishes you as a serious contender for the job in only a few paragraphs. It shows you’re not just applying for anything and everything you see; you’ve assessed the criteria spelled out in the job ad and now you’re introducing yourself as shortlist material.

A cover letter is like the introductory handshake at an interview. It’s a personal greeting on paper or (more likely these days) in an email that breaks the ice and introduces you to the prospective employer. It outlines why you’re making contact and why you’d be a valuable employee.

‘I’ statements work well to express how you fit the bill — just don’t overuse them. 

Your cover letter serves a number of purposes. It can act as

  • A letter of introduction. Give the employer a snapshot of who you are by introducing yourself in the cover letter. Tell the recruiter why you’re writing and how you fit the bill. When writing to an employer, you can add a line about why you want to work for their particular organisation.
  • A selling mechanism. You only have 30 seconds to grab a recruiter’s attention so don’t be shy. The cover letter is your first opportunity to sell your skills, abilities, qualifications and work experience.
  • The entrée before the main meal. A strong cover letter jumps out at the recruiter or employer and sparks interest. It whets the appetite and arouses interest in your resume before it has even been read.
  • An example of your writing skills. Your cover letter gives the recruiter or employer a feel for your written communication skills. It demonstrates your ability to construct a letter, convey well thought-out ideas and shows off your wonderful eye for detail.
  • A perfect skills match. A well-crafted cover letter is customised to the job and the employer. It’s not a generic ‘one size fits all’ letter you send to a large number of employers. Your cover letter spells out how your skills match perfectly to the requirements of the role. 

Initiative scores highly on a recruiter’s checklist, so before you start putting together your cover letter, take the trouble to do some research on the company and job. If the specific employer is not mentioned in a job ad posted by a recruitment agency, do your homework on the industry sector. 

Look for telltale clues as to who the employer could be through phrases in the job ad such as ‘market leader’, ‘leading multinational company’ or ‘family-owned business’. If the company name is on the job ad, use its website to find information on the company’s products and services, corporate culture and values. By going to this trouble, the recruiter will know you’re genuinely interested in the role.

Types of A Cover Letter

Cover letters come in different styles or formats, depending on how you’re approaching the employment opportunity. The three main types are:

Cover letter in response to a job ad. This type of cover letter is by far the most common and is written in response to a specific job advertisement. 

Referral cover letter. This type of cover letter is written to an employer on the recommendation of a personal contact. The person who referred you to the organisation is mentioned in the first paragraph of the cover letter. 

Always get the okay first before using the name of one of your contacts in a cover letter. A personal introduction to a recruitment consultant or hiring manager is a great way to stand out from the candidate pack. Employers in particular welcome such introductions as they believe their employees understand their culture and requirements and only refer candidates suited to their environment. Many even pay employees for referring candidates who are then hired.

Cold-call or unsolicited cover letter. This type of cover letter is sent to an employer you would like to work for requesting a meeting or to be told if any potential vacancies arise within an organisation.

Components of a Cover Letter

After you’ve done your homework and gathered all the research you need, you’re ready to start writing. A cover letter has three main parts:

  • Introduction: This includes the contact details and addresses, salutation and a subject line if appropriate, and the first paragraph of your letter. This opening paragraph contains a brief statement telling the reader why you’re making contact.
  • Body: This is where you dazzle the reader by rattling off your skills, abilities, qualifications, experience and achievements. Highlight why you want to work for the firm and how you can meet the company’s needs. Hold the recruiter’s attention by showing off how your experience and skills match closely to the recruitment criteria for the job.
  • Conclusion: This outlines the next step of the process and confirms your availability. Don’t forget to mention your telephone number so that an employer can reach you to arrange an interview time.

How To Write A Cover Letter in 3 Steps

Step 1. Making an introduction

Ensure you start your cover letter with the following essential information.

Your contact details

You can create your cover letter as a separate document or write it in the body of an email message. If you choose to place your cover letter in the body of an email, include your phone number. When creating a separate document, include your name, mobile or landline number and email address. Including your postal address is optional.

Date

If creating a separate document, type the current date at the left margin, using the day, month and year, like this: 17 January 2014. Don’t write the date on an email cover letter. The date will automatically appear on the email.

Contact’s name and address

Make sure you address your cover letter to the right person, and use his or her correct title. If no name is given in the job ad, ring the organisation and find out the key contact’s name — don’t automatically send it to the HR manager or managing director of the company (they may not be the best person). Also, check the correct spelling of both the person’s name and that of the company. Including the address of the employer in an email cover letter is optional.

We don’t recommend mass mailing or emailing cover letters to hundreds of firms in your industry. Sooner or later, you’re bound to accidentally address your cover letter to Mrs Taylor instead of Mr Adams, or call the organisation by its competitor’s name. The trick is to be selective in the jobs you apply for. How could you truly be qualified for hundreds of roles? Tailor a cover letter to your selected organisation and proofread everything prior to sending. Better yet, get a second pair of eyes to proofread your efforts.

Salutation

If possible, use the appropriate person’s name, instead of addressing him or her as ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or opening with ‘To whom it may concern’. Adding that little personal touch shows recruiters you’ve used your initiative.

Don’t get too chummy with employers — avoid starting your cover letter with first names, such as ‘Dear Bob’, a sore spot for some recruiters. Instead, stick to surnames (Dear Mr Kiri) in the salutation unless you’re on a first-name basis with the recruiter.

If the recruiter is female and you’re unsure of her marital status, don’t guess and write ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. When in doubt, use ‘Ms’.

Subject line

If you’re responding to a specific ad, include the job title in the subject line of the cover letter or in the email’s ‘Subject’ field, and quote the reference or job number (if one is mentioned), like this:

RE: Marketing Assistant role (Ref No MA3456/07)

A reference number is simply a code that employers use to distinguish one job from another. Some companies advertise different jobs at the same time, so make the recruiter’s life easier by stating the job and the reference number in your cover letter. For government jobs, look for the vacancy reference number or job number contained in the job description or take a peek at the ad posted on the public sector job board.

For cold-call or speculative cover letters, use the subject line of the email to grab attention. Write a short, specific message that encourages the recruiter to open and read your email.

Employers often decide whether to delete or open emails by reading the subject line. Never leave the subject line blank. By doing so, they may accidentally discard your email or leave it unopened in their inbox.

Opening paragraph

In the opening paragraph, outline the main reason for establishing contact. Are you responding to an advertised vacancy? If so, where and when was the job advertised? Are you cold-calling and looking for job openings? Have you been referred by a contact?

If you were recommended by a colleague, manager or your best buddy, make sure you name-drop in your cover letter, particularly if your contact is well respected and liked in the industry. Many jobs these days are filled through personal referral. Some employers even pay their employees a fee if they introduce a candidate who then lands the job.

Step 2. Building the body

The body of your cover letter needs to be only two or three paragraphs long. Concise but still detailed, it explains to the recruiter or employer what skills, knowledge, experience, qualifications and personal attributes you can bring to the specific role on offer. Why are you the best person for the job? What are your selling points? Showcase a few achievements that you’re particularly proud of that relate to the role.

Reasons for pitching for the job

Sell your strongest points tailored to the job on offer. Show exactly how your skills and experience match the criteria for the job. To pull it off, firstly you need to find out what’s required to do the job. Read the job ad closely and underline the key criteria. Most ads list what the successful candidate must have. Next, think about what skills, qualifications, knowledge and experience you have that relates to the criteria, and incorporate this into the body of your cover letter. Add a bit of your own personality into your cover letter for extra sparkle.

Reasons for joining the company

Make a connection with the recruiter straightaway by indicating your reasons for wanting to join the firm. Think about the company and what makes it stand out. Aspects you could mention are the firm’s reputation, client base, culture, development opportunities and work challenges offered. If you’ve done your research, this sentence is a cinch.

Highlight your career achievements

Demonstrate why the employer would be mad not to take you on board by including a couple of your top achievements relevant to the job. Including relevant achievements shows off the sort

of energy and drive you will bring to the job if hired. Refer to Chapter 3 for more on highlighting your achievements.

Step 3. Conclusion

In the final paragraph, end on a positive note by suggesting a face-to-face meeting or a Skype meeting if you live interstate or overseas. The conclusion wraps up the letter and outlines your next action.

Outlining the next steps of the process

If you have not already done so in the body of your cover letter, use the closing paragraph to mention that your resume is attached. You can also thank the recruiter or employer for considering your application and clarify the next step of the process. 

For example, be blunt but polite and make reference to the likelihood of an interview — indicate when you’re available and that you’d love the opportunity to discuss the position further. If you’re writing a speculative cover letter, you may want to end by stating you will follow up with a phone call or an email within the week.

Ensuring you’re contactable

Make sure you put down a contact number in your closing statement, so an employer can reach you to arrange an interview.

Signing off

Sign off your cover letter with ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’. Use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have addressed the letter to a particular person; use ‘Yours faithfully’ if you don’t have a contact name. Type your name on a line at the bottom but leave space for your signature if you’re sending a hard copy of the cover letter. For cover letters sent by email or posted online, just add your name. Also triple-check that your resume is attached to the email or included in the online application.

Never promise something in your cover letter you can’t deliver. If you mention in the closing paragraph that you plan to follow up by phone or email at the end of a week, diarise the date and do it.

Cover Letter Samples

Sample 1: A cover letter in response to a job ad

Julie Chan 

5/4 Aster Avenue, 

CHATSWOOD NSW 2067 

0438 xxx xxx 

Email: [email protected]

21 February 2014

Ms Lisa Hamilton 

Finance Recruitment 

Level 2, 10 Smith St 

SYDNEY NSW 2000

Dear Ms Hamilton,

RE: MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTANT – 2B/03009

I read your advertisement for a Management Accountant posted on CareerOne.com.au with great interest as I believe I have the experience and qualifications needed to succeed in the role.

You will find my resume attached, but of particular relevance to the role is my experience working in a contract role as a Management Accountant with BHP Billington and the three years I spent in a similar role at Company X. I am also a Chartered Accountant and an active member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

As you will see from my resume, I have led a project that created reporting processes and policies for a new division of Company X. My work on this project was recognised when I was named Staff Member of the Year in 2012.

I would welcome an opportunity to meet with you at an interview to discuss my application further.

Yours sincerely 

Julie Chan

Sample 2: A cover letter when you’re approaching an employer or recruiter ‘cold’

Aimee Nairn 

M: 0273 xxxxx 

Email: [email protected]

26 February, 2014

Ms Linda Krimstein 

Account Director

Zoom Digital Agency 

Level 4, 16 Wolfe Street 

Auckland NZ

Dear Ms Krimstein,

After reading the article in the New Zealand Herald about the launch of Zoom Digital Agency and your plans to build up the team, I write to introduce myself as a potential future team member.

I enclose my resume for your consideration, but of particular relevance is my four years working in the digital media space in both Melbourne and London in account management and business development.

Originally from Auckland, I recently returned home and would love to be part of the team working to make the Zoom Digital Agency a huge success in New Zealand.

I will follow up this email in a few days to see if there is a convenient time to drop by your office and chat about what I could contribute to Zoom.

Yours sincerely 

Aimee Nairn

Cover Letter Tips

We have already covered a lot of ground, and your cover letter is probably looking the part now, but here are a few final thoughts to ensure your cover letter is a real winner.

1. Making it a one page wonder

Your cover letter should only be one page long. Any longer and you’re giving too much information, taking up too much of a recruiter’s or employer’s time, and demonstrating that you can’t summarise using a clear, concise writing style.

The recruiter or employer is time-poor, and sifting through applications for the job role you’re after is just one of many tasks on their ‘to-do’ list.

2. Keeping it simple

Don’t go over the top with the design of your cover letter: Keep it simple and easy to read. Use the same font and style as you use in your resume. Use plain fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Verdana and Tahoma, because these ooze professionalism. Keep font sizes between 10 and 12 point (depending on the font). Steer clear of using graphics, fancy borders and never include a photo of yourself. Left-align your cover letter as well — this style suits current fashion and looks a lot neater.

3. Spacing is in

No-one likes reading mountains and mountains of straight text. Not only is this hard on the eyes, but it’s also a little overwhelming to the reader. Use white space to give your cover letter a lift, and remember to increase space between paragraphs. Leave enough space for margins too, while remembering to keep your cover letter to one page.

4. Making style count

Your cover letter needs to be inviting to the reader. If you’re sending your cover letter and resume by post, print it out on white paper. Keep in mind, however, that most job applications are sent by email these days, so be sure to keep the style of your email clean and easy to read as well.

5. Spellang mistakes—ooops!

Make sure that your cover letter is error free. Don’t just rely on spellcheck, and beware of words that sound the same but are not the same, such as ‘role’ being misspelled as ‘roll’—it drives recruiters crazy. Don’t set off on the wrong foot by not proofreading your work thoroughly. Always take the time to read through your cover letter carefully before you shoot off your application to the employer. Better yet, ask a friend who’s a good speller to proof it for you. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can catch a mistake you’ve overlooked.

6. Using the right language

Be mindful of the language you use in your cover letter. Here are eight don’ts to bear in mind when it comes to language usage in your cover letter:

  • Don’t be too pushy. Being too aggressive and overpowering in your cover letter is an instant turn-off. Sure, sell your skills, qualifications and achievements with confidence but don’t be intimidating.
  • Don’t come across as a desperado. You may have been trying to break into the job market for some time, but don’t come across as desperate and willing to take any job that comes along. Apply for jobs you’re genuinely interested in.
  • Don’t use negative statements. Making comments such as ‘Although I don’t have . . .’ or ‘Despite being . . .’ does little to instil confidence in your abilities. Instead, put a positive spin on your sentences by using words such as ‘I have . . .’, ‘I can . . .’ or ‘I am able to . . .’.
  • Don’t waffle. One of the big bugbears of recruiters is cover letters full of waffle. Don’t beat around the bush, babbling on and on and on — get straight to the point. Write just one page of short, snappy statements. If you have the gift of the gab and can talk the hind legs off a donkey, edit your cover letter ruthlessly after you’ve written it.
  • Don’t overuse the word ‘I’. Add a touch of variety to your cover letter by starting your paragraphs off in different ways.
  • Don’t reveal too much. Avoid pouring out your heart to the recruiter, particularly if you’ve experienced bad luck in the past. Sob stories are off putting.
  • Don’t use too many big words. Don’t go overboard trying to impress the recruiter with your extensive vocabulary. Use simple, straightforward language and avoid using slang, colloquialisms or company acronyms.
  • Don’t be fake. Never ever lie, embellish the truth or pretend to be someone you’re not in your cover letter. Any claims you make will be tested at job interview and again during the reference checking process.

7. Handwriting doesn’t pay

Handwriting doesn’t look professional and makes you look old-fashioned. If you don’t have a computer at home, find one elsewhere. You can always access a computer at your local library and if you’re not up to speed with your typing or computer skills, ask a friend or family member to help you.

8. Focusing on the employer

Too many people mention in a cover letter what they want from the employer, instead of focusing on the employer’s needs. A well-written cover letter convinces the recruiter you have what it takes to do the job. It outlines why the company is special and talks about how you can add value to the company’s business.

9. Keeping your salary a secret

Don’t mention salary requirements in your cover letter. It may work against you. The second job interview or after a job offer is the best time to bring up money matters.

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